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UU Cooperative History

Unitarian Universalists and Intentional Community, Part I
by Dan McKanan, Professor, Harvard Divinity School

Why should Unitarian Universalists be especially interested in intentional community? Unlike some religious movements, notably early Christianity and the Latter-day Saints, our traditions did not pass through an early stage in which the entire group was organized communally. And we have never encouraged our most earnest members to form monastic communities of intense spiritual discipline, as is the case in Roman Catholicism and Buddhism. Indeed, most (not all) Unitarian Universalists have been wary of any attempt to organize communities along religiously restrictive lines. But therein lies our particular contribution: from the beginning of the nineteenth century, Unitarians and Universalists have been prominent in attempts to organize so-called “nonsectarian” communities. Though these communities welcome members of all faiths or none, many have been inspired by religious ideals, whether the hope to build God’s kingdom on earth or to experience more fully the interconnected web of all life. 

In the 1840s, Universalists and Unitarians were at the forefront of the Alphadelphia, Hopedale, Brook Farm, Northampton, and Fruitlands communities—some well known, others all but forgotten. Former Universalists helped build communities affiliated with the Spiritualist movement, including one devoted to creating a perpetual motion machine. Time spent in intentional community helped lead abolitionists Angelina Grimke and Theodore Dwight Weld to Unitarianism late in their lives. All of these nineteenth century communities helped inspire new generations of agrarian communes, urban household communities, and cooperative businesses in the twentieth century. As these ventures sought to learn from one another’s experience, a Unitarian-turned-Quaker named Arthur Morgan, president of Antioch College, was the catalyst for what is now the Fellowship for Intentional Community, the most encompassing network of communal ventures in U.S. history. 

It is no wonder that Unitarian Universalists remain active in ecovillages, cohousing communities, student cooperatives—and the Lucy Stone Coop. Over the coming months, I will be sharing some of these stories from UU communal history in more detail. Stay tuned!